Reading into... Italy

La Bella Figura - A Field Guide to the Italian Mind

by Beppe Severgnini

Broadway Books, HK$187

Beppe Severgnini is an Italian journalist who's used to presenting his country to US audiences. He has a good feel for what interests English speakers, as he shows in La Bella Figura. Over 10 days, he takes an unnamed American visitor on a tour of several Italian sites: Milan, Florence, Rome, Sardinia and his small home town of Crema, near Milan. In brief cameos he highlights the quirks of his fellow countrymen and explains the reasons for their oddities.

A pithy phrase-maker, he deplores ugly urban sprawl, describing the area around Treviso as 'one huge Tucson in a spaghetti sauce'. A village is 'clinging to a hillside like a snail on a stick'. The many Italians who survive on their wits are 'a triumph of unpunished impudence'.

The Italian dream is 'to make a virtue of necessity and a spectacle of virtue'. Italians aim at 'gratifying chaos' and are 'champions at turning a problem into a party', which is perhaps why so many problems are left unresolved.


Italy's small towns such as Severgnini's birthplace, Crema, offer 'the right mix of unpredictability and reassurance'. Their inhabitants know 'the difference between the little things and the trivial'. Italy is a land 'where frontiers become fuzzy'. 'Fine gestures come easier to us than good behaviour' he admits, which is one reason why 'we're a young democracy with incipient senescence'.

Stronger on epigrams than narrative, the visitor and his trip are mere excuses for Severgnini to hold forth and perhaps recycle material already used in newspaper articles. The chapters become a series of snippets, always immediate but more history and background would have added depth.

Severgnini's insistence that the Italian mind is hyperactive, and that everything in Italy is fascinating can become irritating. He admits the country has lost its elan in recent decades but has a more hopeful outlook than many, including Italians who say it's lost the plot completely. 'I see [Italy] as being on the starting grid, its engine throbbing. But it's been there for a while now, and the race is already in the third lap.' Unfortunately, he doesn't examine why it is stalled.

In the last chapter, the unnamed American visitor writes to Severgnini summing up his impressions of Italian virtues and vices. In the latter camp are intelligence (overused to complicate matters); intuition (so uncanny that it's an excuse not to do any 'homework' with the result that Italy is left behind by less talented but more disciplined nations); intentions (often good but not backed by groundwork); and intimacy (Italians find this easy but it often leads to the neglect of rules).


Positives are genius (not just in high culture but in everyday matters to facilitate a pleasant life); gusto (both enjoyment and good taste); guts (pluckily facing life's complications); and generosity (in the way Italians treat both visitors and immigrants).

Of course, these come from Severgnini's pen, and it's typically Italian that the negatives he attributes to Italians are indistinguishable from qualities.